“Blowing Smoke” by Dwight Garner
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Squire. Find every Squire article each published on Esquire Classic.
“I don’t have much sense without tobacco.”
—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever
My mom smoked a pack a day for much of her life, and as a kid I hated it. Our house stank. The car was worse. She would have hotboxed me and my siblings by neglecting to roll down the windows. Once or twice, by accident, she brushed me with a lit cigarette. As Henry Fonda said of one of Hollywood’s most furious smokers, “I’ve been close to Bette Davis for thirty-eight years and I’ve got the cigarette burns to prove it.” We took revenge on my mother, when we were teenagers, by slipping these little bursts of explosive charges into the points of her merits. My mother is the sweetest woman in the world and doesn’t have a big temper. But when one of his cigarettes exploded in his face, slam, leaving her looking like Wile E. Coyote on the wrong side of an Acme spherical bomb, she would lose her. We would run away at a hilarious speed, accelerated and mute.
I was not a smoker in high school or college. But, reader, I married one. My wife, Cree, looked more than fine with a cigarette, and she still does. She is tall and has long, dignified hands, richly veined as if they were hydraulic things. Smoking has always favored people with excellent mitts. Men with long, slender fingers – Peter O’Toole, Barack Obama, theater critic Kenneth Tynan – were forced to hold cigarettes. So were murderers like Charles Bukowski who used cigarettes to show off their knuckles the way some women know how to show off their ankles. The idea of Donald Trump holding a cigarette, two of his Vienna sausages around an inch of wet, angry white asparagus, makes you cringe. In the company of my wife, I began to envy the pleasure she took in smoking. I envy everyone’s pleasures, all the time. One of the best things about reading, tracking your species, is discovering new ones. I started smoking Camel Lights, as they were called then, in my thirties. I kept it, about half a pack a day, for a decade. It is a strange thing to acquire a new consuming vice later in life. You can have those humbling teachable moments — stopping to vomit after your first real breaths, for example — when you’re old enough to recognize just how much of a show you are. Almost anything worthwhile is heinous the first time you try it: coffee, bourbon, singing Tom Waits, habaneros, donning a gimp mask (jk!). Acquired tastes are the ones that matter.
Most of the time, I’m glad I quit. I could. It was expensive. (In Manhattan, where I live, cigarettes now cost a whopping twelve or thirteen dollars a pack.) I wish I was alive to meet my grandchildren and welcome our alien overlords. But there’s so much I miss about it that I’m getting deeply maudlin just thinking about it. Something has disappeared from my life and, more importantly, from the culture – something that we have little chance of recovering. I miss the taste of coffee and whiskey. I miss the way they soothed my nerves, kept me lean, opened little parentheses in my day. (It hardly seems surprising that since Americans have largely quit smoking, we weigh more and flood the oceans with the residues of our antidepressants.) The way cigarettes make people linger around the I miss the table for hours. I miss the camaraderie of everyday smoking. I landed the most important job of my life, at least in small part, because I ended up smoking with people in the stairwell of a tall office building at a magazine night. I befriended one of these people, and he became one of my bosses. I miss lighting them up for women. I have a close friend, Catherine, who was a sorority girl at Ole Miss. One of the social codes she learned there, she told me, is that while a man is lighting your cigarette, you must look him directly in the eye.
I miss how cigarettes worked like clocks, chopping up time. They were sometimes used for unusual purposes in this way. Who can forget the distressing scene in Taxi driver in which Jodie Foster lights a cigarette, puts it down, and says to a customer, “Fifteen minutes isn’t long. When this cigarette goes out, your time will be up. What I miss the most is the cigarette ceremonies, their language, in the streets and in the movies. I tend to agree with Richard Klein, who wrote in his wonderful 1993 book, Cigarettes are sublime, that “cigarettes, though harmful to health, are a formidable and magnificent tool of civilization and one of America’s proudest contributions to the world”. Klein understands the contradictory nature of cigarettes, how “they both raise and lower the pulse, they calm as much as they excite, they are an occasion for reverie and a tool for concentration, they are superficial and deep , soldiers and gypsies, odious and delicious.”
I never want to be trapped on a long-haul flight or in a movie theater with smokers again, experiences I’m just old enough to remember. But bars are not the same without them. (“No smoking in bars,” commented Samantha sex and the city. “What’s next, no fucking in bars?”) Rock shows aren’t the same either. There is a deep irony in the fact that when you vape, the substance that makes your breath feel like a cloud of mist when you exhale is propylene glycol, the same substance used in fog machines at concerts. This has been linked, in machinists, to chronic lung problems. I’m completely mixed on vaping. There’s nothing worse than walking behind a vaper through the streets and getting a healthy dose of creme brulee, birthday cake, or pumpkin pie. It’s like walking through a cobweb of cotton candy; it smells like a megaton syrup fart. And now that smoking weed is virtually decriminalized in many places, the skunk smell of weed perfumes our waking hours. As columnist Ginia Bellafante wrote in The New York Times, pot smoke is “New York’s signature scent experience.” (At least until summer, when it’s urine.) I like potty; for this reason, and for political reasons, I am happy to see the progress that has been made. But I get sick every day from the funk in the air. Smell is subjective. My pot smells good; yours is oppressive. Chinese food is one of the great flavors of the planet, for example, as Chuck Berry pointed out in his autobiography. But not if someone opens a container of General Tso’s Chicken behind you in a dark theater or on the subway.
Many of my friends walk around with Juuls in their palms now. It’s a plausible compromise even if, as a friend likes to say, they feel like sucking a robot’s dick. You can “smoke” them inside, which reminds you of the 1970s. It’s hard to know when enough is enough with a Juul. You end up like the narrator of the great novel by Martin Amis Money, who comments, “Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I always smoke another cigarette.”
I realize that this lament runs counter to our moralistic, health-obsessed culture. Don’t @ me, as they say on Twitter. I am proud of the people who managed to quit. I’m working on my wife too, so subtly. Whenever I go abroad, I buy her these cheap duty free cigarettes as she asks me. But I make sure they’re in that shocking British packaging, with grim photographs of chipped teeth and holes in people’s sad wrinkled necks. However, on some late nights around the dinner table, where we settle for whiskey and candles instead of cigarettes, someone will start hatching a plan. “When we’re all eighty, we’re gonna get together and start Camel all over again with no filter, right?” I bet everything.